NEW YORK — Ciaran Carson, whose poetry and prose captured the pungency, tensions, and rich heritage of Northern Ireland, especially his native Belfast, died in the city Sunday. He was 70.
Laura Susijn of the Susijn Agency, which represented him, said the cause was lung cancer.
Mr. Carson was perhaps best known as a poet, and his most acclaimed collection may have been “Belfast Confetti,” published in 1989.
“Carson’s lanky verses and prose poems have made poetry out of the scary complexities of the distraught city,” Thomas D’Evelyn wrote of that volume in The Christian Science Monitor. Its title poem begins with a jarring collision of imagery:
Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks,
Nuts, bolts, nails,
A fount of broken type. And the explosion
Itself — an asterisk on the map. This hyphenated line, a burst of
rapid fire …
I was trying to complete a sentence in my head, but it kept stuttering.
All the alleyways and
blocked with stops and colons.
He experimented with structure, and his style evolved, from longer lines to shorter, fragmented ones.
“I can’t say why the forms in which I write have changed so radically over the years,” he told the Wake Forest University Press in 2010, “but it seems we should adopt new methods for new situations. The situation demands the form.”
His exploratory nature also infused a wide variety of prose works. There was the mosaiclike “Shamrock Tea” (2001), which, as The Guardian put it, “claims to be a novel but might equally be filed under History, Philosophy, Art, or Myth and Religion.” There was the idiosyncratic memoir “The Star Factory” (1997), which the Chicago Tribune called “a positive, loving, even celebratory evocation, the work of a man determined to live an ordinary urban life, and to clear in it a place for the imagination.” There was “Last Night’s Fun,” his meditation on traditional Irish music.
“He leaves such a wide body of work that people will have their own favourites, including the magnificent ‘Belfast Confetti,’ ” the president of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, said in a statement. “Representing Belfast in all its variety, the memoirs and books, such as ‘The Star Factory,’ revealed a deep love of place.”
Ciaran Gerard Carson was born Oct. 9, 1948, in Belfast. His father, William, was a postman, and his mother, Mary (Maggin) Carson, worked in linen mills. The family was Roman Catholic and bilingual, speaking the Irish language at home, and Mr. Carson grew up with an appreciation of words, their origins, their sounds.
“I used to lull myself to sleep with language,” he wrote in “The Star Factory,” “mentally repeating, for example, the word capall, the Irish for horse, which seemed to me more onomatopoeically equine than its English counterpart; gradually, its trochaic foot would summon up a ghostly echo of ‘cobble,’ till, wavering between languages, I would allow my disembodied self to drift out the window and glide through the silent dark gas-lit streets above the mussel-coloured cobblestones.”
He earned a degree in English in 1971 at Queen’s University, Belfast, then in 1975 took a job with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. He would remain there until 1998, dealing first with traditional music and then literature. His first poetry collection, “The New Estate,” was published in 1976.
His poetry often addressed the tensions inherent in living in Belfast during troubled times. “Last rders,” from “Belfast Confetti,” begins starkly:
Squeeze the buzzer on the steel mesh gate like a trigger, but
It’s someone else who has you in their sights. Click. It opens. Like electronic
Russian roulette, since you never know for sure who’s who, or what
You’re walking into.
Mr. Carson — who was also an accomplished translator, working in several languages — viewed writing poetry not as an exercise in setting down an idea but as an exploration.
“The kind of examination question which used to be put, ‘What did the poet have in mind when he said …’ is an assumption that the poet clothes his thought in verse,” he told The Spectator in 2012, “whereas the poet often doesn’t know what he has in mind: He follows the language, and sees where it might lead him, which is usually a very different place from what he thought at the onset.”
Mr. Carson, who was a skilled flutist, leaves his wife, Deirdre Shannon, an accomplished fiddle player; three children, Manus, Gerard, and Mary; and four siblings, Caitlin, Pat, Brendan, and Liam.
Mr. Carson had been struggling with cancer for some time, and some of his most recent poems mused on the approaching end of his life. One, called “Claude Monet: ‘The Artist’s Garden at Vétheuil,’ 1880,” published just two months ago in The New Yorker, concluded:
How strange it is to be lying here listening to whatever it
The days are getting longer now, however many of them I have left.
And the pencil I am writing this with, old as it is, will easily outlast their end.